A terrible fire in Blantyre’s Calder Street on 28th December 1937, left eight families shattered and homeless. This was to be a Christmas they would never forget.
The fire raged through ten former houses known as Leggat’s building directly opposite the Blantyre Miner’s Welfare Institute. (in what is now the site of the bottle banks in Asda Car Park near the Calder Street junction with Craig Street) The fire swept through the two-storey block of ten homes in Calder Street. Whilst eight families lost their properties, in two cases the families practically lost all their belongings.
A mother was injured through rushing into a burning house to the rescue of her four-year-old son, who was not there. A nineteen-year-old youth, asleep after working on a night-shift, was wakened by choking smoke, and escaped by jumping out of a window 15 feet from the ground. An elderly woman had a handbag containing £115 of savings restored to her after it had remained for some time unnoticed among a heap of furniture.
A woman who was in the middle of flitting to Burnbank, returned from an afternoon visit to Glasgow to find her furniture already piled up outside the home she was leaving, and at once arranged for the ” flitting “to take place on that night”. Two other families returned to their house, which escaped the worst of the blaze. The remaining seven were accommodated comfortably in the Miners’ Welfare Institute across the street.
Mrs Tempney, in whose home the fire started, spent the night in a neighbour’s house, being visited from time to time by a doctor. It was she who rushed frantically into her house, which she had left for a few minutes, fearing her four-year-old boy, John, was inside. She was beaten back by fierce flames, but persisted in trying to get inside. Neighbours dragged her forcibly into the street, where she collapsed. The outbreak began shortly before three o’clock in the afternoon, which had already started to get dark. Within seconds of the alarm being raised the street was in an unproar. People dashed from all quarters, one telephone call after another was sent to Hamilton for the fire brigade and within a few minutes, scores of men, women and boys were themselves fighting the flames. Buckets of water were brought from nearby washhouses and thrown on to the blazing building with little effect. William Hutchison, son of the caretaker of the Welfare Institute, attached the Institute hose to a tap in one of the houses, and was playing water on the flames when a fire engine from Hamilton arrived.
Someone remembered that John Stewart (19) would be sleeping in one the two houses on the upper storey. His mother, a widow, was out scrubbing floors, and the other members of the family were elsewhere. John was in the house alone. Constable White, a well-known police footballer, accompanied by young Hutchison and John Mains, of Craig Street, leaped up the outside stair at the back of the building and battered on the door of the Stewarts’ house. By this time John Stewart was awake. “I was awakened by the smoke,” he told the “Press and Journal.” reporter. “It was choking me, and when I opened my eyes the place was full of smoke. Jumping out of bed I hauled open the scullery door. Flames came at me so there was no chance of getting out that way. I heard knocking on the door and men shouting to me. There was only one way to get clear, and that was by the window looking on to the Calder street. I pulled on a pair of trousers and a shirt, but did not stop to put anything on my feet. I then climbed through the window and jumped. People gathered round me, but I was all right. Just before I jumped, I felt the floor would give way at any minute.”
Mrs Stewart returned to find she had lost everything. Her house on the top flat was totally destroyed. It stood above the house occupied by the Tempneys. At one period every scrap of furniture which had been saved from the blaze was piled up in Calder Street or on the vacant spaces round the building. Miners and other workmen from the Institute gave magnificent help in saving furniture from houses not immediately involved. One woman from Craig Street, Mrs Main followed her husband into the Tempney house as Mrs Tempney herself had done previously, fearing there was a child inside. They were beaten back by the flames, and Mr Main had his hair and eyebrows burned. The boy was later found to be safe.
Long after the fire was out an elderly grey-haired figure stood surrounded by her household effects. She was Mrs Myers, and she was clinging firmly to a handbag in which there was £115. “It was found under a heap of furniture,” her daughter said. “My mother had drawn the money out of the bank for the New Year. She was always in the habit of giving us something about this time. The bag was simply tossed out with the rest of the things in the house, and was found a few minutes ago.”
Today, there are no houses directly across from the Miners Welfare on Calder Street, as this fire shaped the street as we know it today. They were demolished a short time after the fire in early 1938, making way for the immediate construction of Blantyre Calder Street library (although construction was suspended due to the outbreak of war)